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Passes that mean more than prizes

Paul Fisher goes inside a young offenders' unit. All 16 boys lope on to the stage, showing the normal adolescent brew of pride and embarrassment, cool and delight. Steve's got certificates for four GCSEs, Dan's got credits for the Youth Award Scheme, and Alan collects RSA word processing and some Smile maths certificates. Steve's also got two years for aggravated burglary; Alan four years for manslaughter. Dan isn't due out until 1998. "Too far ahead for me to think about," he says.

The occasion is billed as a celebration of pupil achievement. The setting is Vinney Green Secure Unit near Bristol for 10 to 17-year-olds whose biggest achievement on arrival is certainly criminal and probably violent. Part-jail and part-school, this is the kind of environment where Jamie Bulger's killers were sent and where, if convicted, the 15-year-old accused of murdering Philip Lawrence might end up.

Some inmates know how lucky they are to be in a purpose-built, clean environment that is still well-staffed and geared for rehabilitation rather than punishment. One who has already been in Exeter Jail tells me later: "Being in a cell 23 hours a day messes your brain. You talk to yourself and maybe you leave worse than what you came in."

The celebration of achievement is exactly what it says it is. The atmosphere is like any other school prize-giving with much applause and the odd wolf-whistle. The differences are in the adults: staff and parents, peripatetic sculpture and music teachers, social workers, Avon councillors, educational psychologists, plus assorted care consultants and day trippers. They're all watching and a few dab at tears.

The proportion of working-class parents is higher than at a usual speech day and the accents vary from London glottal stop, to south-west burr, to sing-song Welsh. A lone pair of middle-class parents say little and, in their pressed anoraks, look crushed. But they too smile and touch the boys' hands and shoulders and demand sight of certificates and workbooks.

Claire Yardley, deputy unit manager with responsibility for education, says: "Most parents are used to visiting schools to hear of bad behaviour and exclusions. We're showing that their boys deserve recognition. By motivating them they are more likely to want to achieve more. I defy anybody to say a kid doesn't want to learn and to succeed and to be like everybody else. If they feel good about themselves, they're more likely to feel good about others. "

The parents feel good about Vinney Green. "He can read better now," says one about her son. I ask if that will make him a better person. "It will help him find a job when he gets out."

"Prison wasn't the place for him," says another parent. "He was learning more about drugs and was going to come out worse. I was scared when he was at Feltham [a far harsher institution for young offenders]. Here he's taught right from wrong and has learnt his mistake." The 'mistake' was to get drunk, steal a car and kill somebody. "Perhaps he'll learn to think before doing things. "

There is much evidence of thought in the art work on display, all unvandalised. The celebration is extraordinary in that these are archetypal non-participants. Yet here they are playing guitars, reciting their poems and acting in a drama of reconciliation. It begins with violent scenes from Bosnia, Ulster and Rwanda, and hands that hold toy guns are eventually extended in handshakes.

The message is one of optimism that catastrophes can be reversed and that redemption is possible. The audience know those on stage are serving time for murder, armed robbery or arson, or are awaiting trial, or are confined under welfare orders declaring them a risk to themselves or others. We know they've had terrible lives and know the arguments pitching retribution against rehabilitation.

The six boys I talked to realise they have a good deal and want Vinney Green to get a good write-up. Some of the enthusiasm is self interest - they don't want to return to places like Feltham or Exeter jail.

They also reveal an awareness of consequence, for example: "You come out a better person. Whether or not you choose to stick to that is up to you" or "I don't want to be like my Uncle and spend most of my life in jail."

The unit manager, Ernie Barrett, has no doubt in his mind what Vinney Green is about. "It's about swapping the emphasis from punitive to rehabilitation whilst maintaining security."

Rehabilitation rules provide for eight teachers and a 25-hour-a-week timetable with an emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy. Every day finishes with private one-to-one personal reading sessions, regardless of ability. Claire Yardley equates low reading ages with low self-esteem. "Nearly all were excluded from the mainstream long before they came here," she says. "It would be criminal if we didn't tackle their reading."

Sane talk, in carpeted rooms with curtained windows, makes a visitor forget that security is tight. Nobody has absconded since Vinney Green opened a year ago and there are constant reminders of how dangerous some of the boys can be. The electronic flares to trigger hidden sensors, the locked doors, the bedroom furniture screwed tight to walls and floors, the security cameras, the cupboard where carpentry tools must be hung against painted shadows lest they are stolen and used as weapons. Such details stick in the mind and you don't forget faces in a gilded cage, nor why they are there.

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